In Afghanistan, all roads lead to Pakistan

For every story of tactical victory, there's one about about things getting worse

Today’s summary of the president’s report on the war strategy is getting tons of press, and while the picture being shown is positive, the truth is that on virtually every measure, the overall situation is very complicated. For every story you read about things getting better, there is one about how they are getting worse somewhere else.

And so even as the coalition is claiming some sort of tactical victory in the South and talking about it turning into permanent gains, a large group of Afghan analysts and observers are arguing that the security situation is worse than ever, and that it is time to sit down and negotiate with the Taliban leadership. This “open letter to Obama” came out last week, and while it hasn’t received a lot of attention, I think it does a useful job of highlighting just why the situation in Afghanistan is so frustrating.

To some extent, the letter simply repeats the tension that has bedeviled all previous calls to negotiate. On the one hand,  the authors acknowledge that a military victory is not possible, the costs of the military mission are unsustainable, and that the presence of international troops must eventually come to an end. On the other hand, they’re pressing for serious negotiations with the Taliban. As many people have repeatedly pointed out, the Taliban won’t have an incentive to negotiate seriously unless there is strong, sustainable and lasting Western military presence — and till now, the Taliban have said they won’t negotiate until foreign troops leave.

But I actually think the key passage in the letter is this one:

The Taliban’s leadership has indicated its willingness to negotiate, and it is in our interests to talk to them. In fact, the Taliban are primarily concerned about the future of Afghanistan and not – contrary to what some may think — a broader global Islamic jihad. Their links with Al-Qaeda – which is not, in any case, in Afghanistan any more — are weak. We need to at least try to seriously explore the possibility of a political settlement in which the Taliban are part of the Afghan political system. The negotiations with the insurgents could be extended to all groups in Afghanistan and regional powers.

I’m an amateur observer when it comes to all things Afghanistan, but this strikes me as a plausible idea in one respect, and somewhat naïve in another.  The central problem with this is that there is no single, organized “Taliban leadership” with which to negotiate. As far as I can tell, there are at least three distinct insurgencies going on. There are the former Kandahar Taliban, who lost their jobs when the Americans invaded in 2001, and are now based in Quetta. Then there is the Haqqani network, based in North Waziristan, which is officially susbsumed under the Quetta Shura, but which is in many ways an operationally, politically, and ideologically distinct organization. And then there are the loosely organized (or not) former mujahideen commanders, warlords, power brokers, and plain old gangsters who taking advantage of the chaos in the country to assert their control over some piece of the pie.

The last group is less an insurgency than a form of organized crime, and all that it would take (“all” being a relative qualifier in the case of Afghanistan) would be for something approaching a legitimate government to assert itself.  With respect to the other two, I learned a lot from Anand Gopal’s analysis of the Kandahar insurgency, for the New American Foundation, and from Jeffrey Dressler’s parallel study of the Haqqani network.

Gopal’s argument is that after 2001, the Taliban had effectively retired, and had for the most part accepted the new government as legitimate. What changed their mind was four things: First, an effective “de-baathificiation” strategy that forbade them from playing any role in the new Afghanistan; second, active reprisals against former Taliban by the new rulers, largely thanks to pressure from the Northern Alliance; third, really bad behaviour by the new government; fourth, really bad behaviour by foreign troops.

If Anand is right, then the Kandahar Taliban — i.e., the Quetta Shura — has no serious idelogical axe to grind. Negotiations with them should be aimed simply at addressing the above grievances and seeing what deal can be struck.

The hard question is what about the Haqqani network, because they seem to be a totally different animal: highly ideological, strongly affiliated with al-Qaeda and related Arab groups, and an instrument of Pakistan, or at least of the ISI. So even if the Quetta Shura can be talked down, can the Haqqani? I doubt it, at least, not as long as Pakistan sees the Haqqani as their proxy for influence in Afghanistan. And why does Pakistan need a proxy in Afghanistan? To counteract the influence of India in that country.

As long as India is playing a role in Pakistan and has links to the Karzai government, Pakistan is never going to go after this crew. The Quetta Shura might cave, but the Haqqani? Unlikely. Increasingly, I’m coming around to the view that it all comes back to Pakistan. They are the true source of the problem, and any solution to what is going on in Afghanistan is going to require dealing with Pakistan.

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